I wanna preface the below with the understanding that I don’t think Hyper Light Drifter is a bad game. It is demonstrably not. Honestly, my standards are so low at this point that as long it’s not filled with gross loli shit or racist under/overtones, then your game is probably fine in my book. BUT HLD (or Hyper Lightmension Driftunia if ya nasty) has a lot of design decisions that I think are very interesting but that I found myself not agreeing with, enough that I’m making a whole blog-post about it.
For the unitiated HLD is a succesfully kickstarted top-down action-exploration game that is pretty hard to define in terms of its inspirations. It feels like it takes bits of everything from traditonal SNES JRPGs to Zelda to — and I’m sorry to say it — Dark Souls. It has no plot to speak of, really. Sure, you can speculate, but unlike Dark Souls, which has a plot you can piece together with some digging and a Vaati video or two, that’s pretty much impossible with HLD, because there’s not a single line of dialogue in the game outside of tutorials. We’re going to get back to this.
Hyper Light Drifter is beautiful. It’s one of the best looking 2D games I’ve ever played. Every pixel is lovingly crafted and purposeful. The fluidity of the animation as the Drifter cuts through enemies never stopped being engaging as I played through the game. Every setting is distinct in its aesthetic and carried a different variation of the overall melancholic tone that the game provides. The music is also fantastic, with brooding synths that sound like they came straight out of a Blade Runner film but without all the Asian fetishization.
What’s the Point?
Let’s get back to that part about HLD having next to zero plot. This can be fine as a design decision. Shadow of the Colossus has so little dialogue, it probably all fits on a double-sided 8.5 by 11 sheet. The problem is that even SotC has an easy to understand goal. Obfuscation doesn’t equal a compelling world to explore in. Dark Souls’ environmental design and even its inventory descriptions give you some idea of what’s going on and your place in its world.
HLD doesn’t have this in any way. Why are you going around killing these enemies? What is the village hub you go back to for upgrades? What are these skeletal titanic remains doing in the world? A little bit of mystique is great in getting the imagination going, but you can’t just stop there. There has to be some thread that players can go down to answer at least some of these questions, even if they’ll never be solved fully. It hearkens back to the unforgiving, hostile environments of a game like the NES Legend of Zelda, where everything is out to kill and you don’t really know why, but doggone you spent money on this cartridge and you’re going to finish it. It’s just not something I’m into personally. By the time I fought the last boss, I assumed I was supposed to feel something about the events that followed. But with no understanding of the stakes towards the conflict I had just been through, I just sort of…blanked out.
You Zig, I Zag
“But Mint,” you say with an exasperated sigh. “The plot is just window-dressing for the main focus, which is clearly the combat, you cheeky tart!”
Alright, fair, fair. And I will say that when all the pieces come together, HLD flows in a way that feels great.
Dancing through bullets, dodging past enemies before cutting them down with your sword can be exhilarating…in the right circumstances. But it takes a long time to get there. Combat is stilted and slow unless you upgrade yourself with a particular set of skills from the main hub of the game. It’s totally possible to miss these upgrades. The only reason I knew of them was that I spent a bit of time researching where best to put the upgrade points I had collected after finishing the first dungeon of the game.
The Chain Dash is a move so fundamental to the core of Driftunia’s design that I was baffled that it wasn’t immediately available in the Drifter’s tool-set — it was like having to level up for the block and dodge roll in the original Kingdom Hearts. The same can be said of the Dash Shield, which lets you move through energy shots with the right timing, and the Sword Deflection, which does exactly what it sounds like against enemy projectiles. The game became infinitely more fun after I built this toolkit, but I don’t feel it should have been “built” in the first place. Getting upgrade parts to improve your character is a staple of the action-exploration genre, I won’t argue that. But as I mentioned, with a myriad of upgrade choices to choose from, you might completely miss these skills. Couple this with a lack of i-frames, busy screen-effects, and some bosses that were more a chore than a challenge to fight through, and you have a game that is definitely mechanically sound, but not built with the sort of tempo I’m interested in when it comes to action games.
Nooks and Crannies (and more Nooks)
And so we find ourselves in the third pillar of Hyper Light Drifter’s design: exploration. Again, I want to make it clear that I don’t think that any of what I’ve talked about up to this point is particularly bad. It’s just not for me. And this applies with HLD’s exploration as well. A lot of the game’s hidden areas are based on the old-school design philosophy of “bumping into all of the walls until you find a wall that’s not actually a wall.” As you get into the game proper, you’ll find yourself wondering if the forest of trees to your left is actually a game border or a spot that takes you to a new screen just out of reach, with goodies to peruse. I’ll admit that I sometimes felt pretty good about finding these spots, especially as they led to new beautiful areas and bits of currency that brought me one step closer to a new item. But by the end of the game, I was getting a bit tired of it all, bumping into one object after another and destroying every item in every room to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Some of the secrets are pretty obvious. Others are so obtuse to reach that you’ll find them either out of sheer luck, or by checking a guide.
This isn’t as big a cardinal design sin as the inability to keep track of everything. You’ll find lots of areas that you’ll need to backtrack to after gaining a certain number of keys, and you have no real way of remembering them unless you make a note outside the game, or, again, keep a guide handy. I unlocked two monoliths. How many are there in total? No idea. I didn’t feel any incentive to explore much outside of the critical path because I knew I’d forget where everything was and had no idea how much progress I was making for the extra stuff.
I guess the general thesis I’m making after writing all this is that HLD really wants you to care — about its characters, its world, and itsmechanical systems — but doesn’t do enough for it to earn that care. It’s simultaneously aloof and open, wanting you to dive into everything it has to offer but not really giving you a reason — or even, depending on your prior preparation or luck, the tools to do so. I didn’t hate my time with Hyper Light Drifter. But I didn’t love it either. I didn’t feel much of anything, and I think that’s a shame, because it’s a game that, with a bit more time, is definitely something I could see myself loving.